Monday, January 22, 2007


More than any other poet of my generation, the work of Nathaniel Mackey comes directly out of the projectivist poetics of Charles Olson, Robert Duncan & Robert Creeley. From Olson & Duncan, and beyond them Pound & especially H.D., Mackey evolves a poetry that borrows deeply from mythology without becoming mushy. From Duncan, whose Passages and The Structure of Rime were long works that intertwined, never once separated out into books of their own, kept always commingled and in context, Mackey takes his own twisting together of “mu” – that title always in quotation marks a la Zukofsky’s “A” – and Song of the Andoumboulou. Indeed, the first section of Splay Anthem, Mackey’s 2006 National Book Award volume, is titled “Braid.” That image gets it exactly right.

From Creeley more even than Olson, Mackey takes his line. No one in my generation has used sonic enjambments more effectively than Mackey, perhaps because he leavens them so often with the countermeasure of alliteration. It is flat out impossible to read Splay Anthem silently, but it is a total pleasure to do so aloud.

Asked once what it was that the Black Mountain poets all had in common, Charles Olson replied “Bird!” The incomparable Charlie Parker having been the first perhaps to demonstrate how jazz as a medium could at once be philosophical & profound, not as a dispassionate academic practice, but thru stretching intensely in almost all directions. Mackey in his medium continues this stretching, reaching both forward formally & historically/mythically back, the lost continent “mu” figuring a longing much deeper than could ever be assuaged, say, by a mere visit to Africa. With its roots in the music of a Dogon burial ritual, Andoumboulou – the name refers to first inhabitants, who function it would seem both as ancestors & as a bridge back to a world not yet fully “human” – is no less elegiac. Yet in the Dogon formula, one does not die so much as one is born into the world of the dead, a reversal that is entirely consistent with Mackey’s own back & forth strategies in the text: throughout, one glimpses images of narrative that one never fully makes out, told through the very music that in some sense seems to drown it out.

It is easy of course to read Mackey’s award as just the third instance of a person of color (the others were Ai and Lucille Clifton) to receive the National Book Award for poetry, historically the least undemocratic of the so-called major awards. Yet where Ashbery & Schuyler won multiple honors for the NY School, and the National Book Award – whose very first prize for poetry went to William Carlos Williams in 1950 – gave prizes to Allen Ginsberg & William Bronk, Creeley’s Bollingen remains the sole such award ever given to the projectivists, even tho they were the poets that everyone among the post-avants in the 1950s defined their writing if not actively against, at least as a contrast, a context, a backdrop. Splay Anthem is the first volume that is, at all moments, consciously destabilized, always restless, never still, ever to receive such an award. That in itself has historic importance, tho the reasons for reading this wonderful book (aloud! you have to read it aloud!) have nothing to do with prizes whatsoever.


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